I LOVE GARDENS most as the weather cools, when plants mellow and begin their slide into winter. Autumn gardens are poignant in their ripeness, their past-the-point-of-perfection dishevelment. The Japanese concept of wabi sabi celebrates this impermanence and the quiet, more modest pleasures of the fall garden.
So I’m always slow to cut down and clear everything away. Birds flock to dying grass stalks and spent flower heads. Few sights or sounds are sweeter than little chickadees and wrens rustling through leaf litter on the garden floor.
But I’ve paid dearly for this autumn laxness. Weeds, slugs, snails and disease spores reproduce in the detritus of summer past. It’s possible to ignore most clean-up tasks now, but you won’t be able to next spring when everything needs doing all at once.
So I turned to Christina Salwitz, aka the Personal Garden Coach, for advice on how best to put the garden to bed. She offers a list of tasks that should be done now.
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The first is to cut back perennials, such as hostas, asters and mums, which collapse into a gooey mess at first frost. Slugs and snails shelter beneath their leaves; cleaning away the mess prevents these beasts from multiplying over the winter. Also pick up and dispose of any diseased leaves, most likely from roses, to prevent pathogens from spreading. But leave coneflowers, ligularia flowers, and ornamental grass blooms standing. They contribute height, winter interest, food for birds and skeletal beauty to the garden through the worst of winter.
“Fall weeding is so important; there are 300 dormant weed seeds per square inch of soil, and you don’t want to add to that,” says Salwitz.
Mulching follows the thorough weeding. Salwitz advises top-dressing soil with compost, then bark or your mulch of choice to further smother weed seeds and protect plants. If you’re not using a cover crop on vegetable beds, now’s the time to mix in amendments like lime, bone meal and alfalfa so they break down over the winter. Then top off with good-quality compost, and you’ll be ready to plant peas in earliest spring.
Be sure to stake new trees and tie up vines so they stay secure through the winter. This prevents breakage and allows new roots to grow deep and stable.
During October, move tender plants like canna lilies, succulents and citrus to a covered porch or beneath a roof overhang to protect them from hail or heavy rains. Now is the time to take cuttings, dig tender bulbs, drag the brugmansia into the garage. Before a serious mid-November freeze, bring all the tender plants indoors for the winter.
Autumn is prime time to shop for perennials, trees, dwarf conifers and shrubs in small, affordable sizes. Salwitz encourages her clients to plant up winter-interest pots to enjoy over the winter. Their root balls will grow over the cool months, and the plants will be much larger and ready to plant into the garden come spring.
Seven essential chores, plus the fun of creating winter containers, and your garden is ready for storms and cold. Tick off the tasks and you’ll be free to admire your garden through the windows as you dream, plan and prepare for the return of spring.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.